Parkersburg News and Sentinel
PARKERS BURG, W.Va. – Terrorism existed before Sept. 11, 2001, but that day brought it home to the United States on a scale not previously imagined.
“Where was terrorism 20 years ago?” said Rob Anderson, associate professor of history at West Virginia University at Parkersburg. “It was over there. Now it’s here.”
For many, that marked the beginning of the War on Terror, which has shifted and changed over the years but is still being fought today.
“When you really think about a war being fought on American soil, with (a foreign) enemy in our midst, you go back to the War of 1812,” Anderson said.
Mike Tager, professor of political science at Marietta College, said the United States government has taken steps to head off a similar attack as the one on Sept. 11, but the nature of the threat has changed. Hijacking airliners to use as weapons required central planning and the recruiting of people with specific skills.
“It seems like now what we face is more these so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks where they can associate themselves with the Islamic State without being a member,” he said, pointing to the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people died, or the killing of 14 people by a husband and wife at an office party in San Bernardino, Calif. “The people are already in the United States. They may be American citizens.”
It’s not a fight like World War II, said Anderson, where “you have two enemies in different uniforms and you defeat them and the war is over.”
The ways in which this battle is fought can be problematic, Tager said, with people sometimes willing to accept greater government reach into their lives – like the Patriot Act and enhanced surveillance – than at times when they felt safer.
“It’s such a difficult problem to deal with, and so you want to take measures that will prevent and deter the attacks, but you don’t want to overreact and take away some of the freedoms” that make American society what it is, he said.
National security is always a topic of conversation around election time, but it became elevated in the 2002 and 2004 national elections, Tager said. While it gradually receded in that decade, the shootings in Orlando and San Bernardino, recent attacks in Europe and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing have brought the issue back into sharp focus.
Anderson noted that even the issue of immigration and security along the U.S.-Mexican border in the current presidential race is colored by concerns over terrorism.
“It’s such a difficult point, such an issue, because clearly there is the potential for terrorists to infiltrate the United States that way,” he said.
At the same time, it impacts Hispanic people not involved in terrorism, Anderson said.
The war may be an unconventional one, but the U.S. military remains present in Afghanistan and Iraq after 15 and 13 years, respectively.
“Every time we think we’ve made progress, something terrible happens,” Anderson said.
For children born just before or since 9/11, the effects of the War on Terror are a part of daily life, Anderson said, much like the Cold War was a part of his youth.
“When I grew up, the Cold War was always present, and the specter of nuclear war hung over our head,” he said.